by Nicholas A. Krehbiel
From the earliest days of colonial settlement, a small number of citizens resisted compulsory military service for religious or ethical reasons, making them the earliest conscientious objectors to war and military service in American history.
The first national draft came to the United States during the Civil War, but there were no universal provisions for conscientious objectors in either the Union or Confederate armies.
World War I and the CO Problem
The Selective Service Act of 1917 provided for conscientious objectors, but they still had to serve in military service as noncombatants, violating the civil rights of those who absolutely rejected to any form of military service. Those men were sentenced to federal military prisons, received harsh treatment, and some died.
The Interwar Period
The Historic Peace Churches (Brethren, Mennonite, and Society of Friends) Conferred to create a more effective form of peace witness and at a 1935 meeting planned to present a cohesive voice to the federal government should military conscription return.
- In 1937 and 1940, Peace Church representatives outlined their central positions on conscientious objection and alternative service to President Franklin Roosevelt.
- The Burke-Wadsworth Bill, the first peacetime national conscription act in American history, passed in September 1940, improving the definition of a conscientious objector and creating alternative service in work of national importance for those men conscientiously opposed to noncombatant service.
Conscription, World War II, and Civilian Public Service
With Acting Director of Selective Service, Lewis B. Hershey and Director of Selective Service Clarence A. Dykstra, the Peace Church representatives planned, lobbied, negotiated, and compromised to submit a program to President Roosevelt in early 1941that would fulfill the requirement of work of national importance.
The Civilian Public Service Program called for COs to be assigned to work camps in soil conservation or forestry projects to begin their service, with the idea that after a number of months, they could volunteer for other programs. As enacted, the men would receive no pay.
The National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), a representative body created by Brethren, Friends and Mennonite leaders served as the advocate for Conscientious Objectors (COs), aided Selective Service in selecting camp sites and in identifying alternative service project ideas.
President Roosevelt’s executive order creating the Civilian Public Service Program placed ultimate authority and responsibility for COs with Selective Service, a militarized organization that classified and drafted civilians for military service. This created a dual administrative system between the Peace Church service committees (American Friends Service Committee, Brethren Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee) and the Selective Service where the service committees held responsibility for the administration and daily operation of the camps, but the Selective Service oversaw the entire program.